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'King Kong': Hip Hop - Vaudeville Style

by Marilynn Larkin
August 5, 2013
SummerStage - Central Park
Terrace Drive
New York, NY 10024
(212) 360-2777
I will state up front that as a hip-hop enthusiast, I was a bit disappointed not to see more dance—even in its earliest iterations of Alfred Preisser & Randy Weiner's King Kong, a sophisticated satire of racial, ethnic and sexual stereotypes, set in New York City in the late 1970s. That said, the pithy script and vibrant performers made for an entertaining show on a beautiful night in New York City's Central Park (the show runs through August 20 in various parks in New York City).

King Kong is part of the "This is Hip Hop" series, a major theme of the 2013 SummerStage festival. According to background information for the show, the series celebrates the 40 years since hip-hop DJ Kool Herc began spinning records in the Bronx, isolating and mixing together breaks from different songs, forming the basis of what we know today as hip hop. King Kong draws the audience back in time, playfully, to that era, with a fanciful story built around archetypal characters.

At the outset of the story, the Gold Brothers, owners of an R&B record label, sing "It's a great time to be Jewish" before realizing their record company is, in fact, starting to fail. In search of a "savior" for the label, the brothers and their secretary, erudite Faye ("Music stimulates the amygdala"), go on a pilgrimage to an area none of the group has ever dared to visit: the South Bronx. There, they discover King Kong — a transgender singer/dancer extraordinaire who ultimately saves the day for the record company after his/her romantic journey with Faye. Along the way, the audience is introduced to the Bronx's dangerous denizens, to exploited dancers, to then-mayor Ed Koch and to purveyors of gangsta rap. Though dance is only part of the focus of King Kong, it was fun to revisit old-school hip hop styles as well as the very light choreography associated with backup singers of the day. At times, the show had a distinct vaudevillian feel, due to its pointed script and eccentric characters who seemed spontaneously to burst into song and dance.

King Kong is a product of a collaboration between theater impresario Weiner and director Preisser. In the words of James Burke, Director of Arts and Cultural Programs for City Parks Foundation, which hosts SummerStage, "Nearly a year ago, when we first began discussing how to create and present this piece, we encouraged Randy and Alfred to take head-on the difficult issues of race, gender, class and commercialization within the recording industry in a way that would engage people and inspire them to have open, honest discussions. The characters in King Kong serve as archetypes that aim to subvert preconceptions and suspend everyday reality through humor, and thus provide a unique social space in which to process reactions…"

I was told in advance that some people are offended by the show, and indeed, a few did leave part way through. But King Kong does not chastise its characters or the audience for their views. Instead, it raises awareness—including self-awareness—in an unabashedly gleeful way, inspiring us to confront our pride and prejudices.
King Kong

King Kong

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Seto


King Kong

King Kong

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Seto


King Kong

King Kong

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Seto


King Kong

King Kong

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Seto


King Kong

King Kong

Photo © & courtesy of Michael Seto

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